By recreating dishes from popular media like “Game of Thrones,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “Twin Peaks,” the chef Iliana Regan didn’t just turn fine dining on its head at her restaurant Elizabeth — she cooked fanfiction
The first time I went to a Game of Thrones dinner at the restaurant Elizabeth, the room was decked out in banners bearing ancestral sigils, while dozens of vinyl figurines were stuffed into every possible gap and onto every ledge. It was April 2017, a seventh season of the show would air in a couple of months, and a friend had come to Chicago to attend this dinner with me, not because we loved Game of Thrones — neither of us had watched for years at that point — but because the idea of a fannish dinner was exciting.
Before each of 10 courses, the staff explained the source or inspiration for everything that was served. We had the “black bread” that is mentioned repeatedly in the novels the TV series is based on. (This version was dyed with squid ink.) It was served with accompaniments, one of which was an asparagus relish; at another table, the server was explaining how he’d seen the chef arranging the asparagus on her bread like dragon scales while testing out the recipe.
If courses were inspired by something exact, the servers mentioned its scene of origin: After Catelyn Stark arrests Tyrion Lannister at an inn, she dines on onions dripping in juices, and we got the same. (The plating of these was vaguely scale-like, too.) Within a three-part course that reflected the seafaring Iron Islands culture, one dish, squid “noodles,” was a subtle nod toward the sigil of the local ruling family. Another Iron Islands dish, clams in a dashi broth, was inspired by a particular line in the fourth book of five currently published: “Aeron broke his fast on a broth of clams and seaweed cooked above a driftwood fire.” These citations were delivered in the same breath as the ingredient sources: This cheese is from Indiana, and that amuse-bouche draws on a description of tables laid with strawberries and sweetgrass.
The chef, Iliana Regan, has seemingly never done anything half-assed or half-hearted in her life; obviously she owns a small army of Game of Thrones dolls, and if she was bothering to cook a menu about it, there was going to be a chest of handmade dragon eggs next to the duck press near the kitchen. Regan is a gatherer, of both what she serves for dinner and details from the stories she interrogates through her cooking. At Elizabeth under Regan, her use of these sources transcended dining room cliche.
Regan — whose name is pronounced “Elena Reegan” — is a savant whose culinary education began in her family’s kitchen, was formalized in small-town Indiana cafes, and furthered in some of Chicago’s highest-end restaurants. She is 43, with good hair and full-sleeve tattoos, which makes her a compelling protagonist; when Elizabeth opened in 2012, former Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel called her Alice, because “the fields and farms where she forages for ingredients comprise her Wonderland.” Years before Elizabeth began a program of dinner (and occasional brunch) menus themed to the fictional worlds Regan cares about, she was referencing texts within her meals to tell diners stories about herself.
Game of Thrones was the first of these, based on foraging for food references within George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire. What Regan did at Elizabeth with Games of Thrones and other thematic menus for five years seems an awful lot like cooking fanfiction. Fanfics are stories set in other creators’ works and populated by other creators’ characters that can serve as comments on or corrections of problematic artworks; this kind of fandom can have a strong social justice bent, and in a male-dominated industry, Regan’s choice to rewrite and interpret often-problematic works she loves is not incidental.
At its core, fanfiction is a process of the audience supplanting the author to retell old stories or forge new ones, because the originals are lacking in some way. This is usually done through writing short stories; Regan, who has two degrees in creative writing, chosen to retell stories through her food. The literal texts she dealt with are series like Game of Thrones. The subtext, though, is that Elizabeth — which is celebrating its 10th anniversary next month — and maybe all of Regan’s projects, questioned what a high-end restaurant is, in Chicago and in general.
Regan’s other efforts — especially her memoir Burn the Place, which came out in July 2019 and was longlisted for a National Book Award — sync up with Elizabeth to show that, rather than expanding outward, Regan’s interests lie in finding what’s meaningful and valuable within what’s already available to her. She mines her own history and puts it into dialogue with her influences — the books and shows she likes, the region she’s spent her life in — so effectively that the contrast between the two blurs. It’s the same project as the most astute fanfiction, where writers reshape texts they care about, good or bad, to a point where something as basic as authorship is obscured.
Regan is a fan, and what she did with her Elizabeth menus was cooking fanfiction.
Regan first became known for foraging. “I can’t claim to know everything about food,” she wrote in 2010, the first line of the first entry of her old blog, “but I do know how to find food.” She regularly trawled Chicagoland and the Great Lakes for things to serve for dinner: wild berries, morels, pine, ants on occasion — whatever she could find. For Regan, foraging isn’t an ideology but, rather, a spiritual practice that grounds her, an identity more than a habit. Growing up in Northern Indiana as the youngest of four sisters, Regan spent her childhood gathering chanterelles and picking berries on her grandfather’s 100-acre farm. “The farm was my identity even before I understood what my identity was,” she writes in her memoir.
The bedrock of her broader practice as a chef-entrepreneur is the Great Lakes landscape and character, which encompass both farmland and the woods, a place that she’s described as her connection to God. Not a specific forest, but just the general idea of being in the woods. “Woods = god,” she texted the food writer Julia Thiel after they went foraging together in 2012. The foraging trip is a Regan-profile cliche, yielding a list of places she’s gathered ingredients around Chicago itself and farther afield: the LeBagh Woods forest preserve on the Northwest Side; a farm in the suburb of Deerfield; a horse farm belonging to her cousin near Valparaiso, Indiana.
Regan is credited with developing her technique into a novel brand of Midwestern cooking, which she calls “new gatherer cuisine.” She and Elizabeth have been compared to René Redzepi and Noma, respectively, and she once described the role of foraging in her cooking to me as “highly influenced by the New Nordic movement, but in our Midwestern region.”
The most extended description of foraging in her memoir concerns frog gigging, or hunting bullfrogs with a forked spear. Fried frog legs become a metaphor for the bridge between Regan’s fine dining credentials and her Midwest brand. “Cuisses de grenouille, the hind legs of frogs, is a dish people associate with French food,” she writes, but also, “The Beer Barrel, the pub near where I grew up, used to serve these.” Regan describes the swampy work of stabbing at things in the dark, equipped with a headlamp and flashlight to stun the frogs in the tall grasses: “Indiana bullfrogs taste as if a crab and a chicken had a baby: juicy, sticky, fleshy. They’re big, too. The biggest one I’ve gigged was sixteen inches long from head to toe.”
Back in the kitchen at Elizabeth, Regan writes of a frog hopping out of her cooler with its guts hanging out where it’s been pierced. Alternately, she tells the reader, it’s possible to grab the frogs by hand and slice their heads off, although they’ll wriggle slimily in the process. Hunting is a millennia-old allegory for mastery over chaos, and Regan isn’t the first to use a scene of gigging in the marshes to encapsulate self-imposed order as a worldview.
In a 2012 essay on her blog about new gatherer cuisine, Regan wrote, “I think it is Maya Angelou that says something to the effect, you don’t have to go further than your own backyard to tell a good story. This is also true I think for the story of food.” A formally trained creative writer — she earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College in Chicago in 2005 and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May 2022 — Regan used menus to corral the details of a chaotic early life into submission before she published an actual book. “I spend a lot of time thinking about food in the same way that I thought about stories,” she’s said.
As Regan entered high school, she began drinking, like her older sister Elizabeth. Regan ended up in jail at age 16 after a drunken car crash in Indiana, and then again in 2001 following a coke-and-tequila-fueled arrest in front of a Mexican restaurant in Lincoln Park, one of the city’s bougiest neighborhoods. (The place Regan describes in Burn the Place sounds like the now-closed Fiesta Mexicana, whose liberal ID policy was popular with the kids from my high school.) She also writes of doing coke in the bathroom while working at a now-closed restaurant called Trio, in the suburb of Evanston.
In pegging Burn the Place as an addiction memoir, Helen Rosner suggests the book’s nonlinear unfurling as a metaphor for the blur of Regan’s life pre-sobriety. It’s a valid interpretation, but the book also narrativizes a life so packed with experience that it defies cause-and-effect storytelling. By training, Regan is more writer than chef, and her structure (such as it is) isn’t a neutral choice. Though Regan says that Elizabeth’s death in 2002 was key in her getting sober, the process unfolded in fits and starts until 2010, with the rest of her life intermingled. If nothing else, it’s true to her personal dynamism; since opening Elizabeth in 2012, she’s never ceased launching projects and products (edibles, ramen kits, skin care) with fanfare and enthusiasm that later subsided. The frenetic time-skipping of Burn the Place feels like a testament from a person who knows she cannot be or do just one thing and needs outlets to realize all of these.
Case in point: In 2002, while studying fiction at Columbia, Regan followed up on a listing in the back of the alt weekly Chicago Reader for a gig at Trio. The restaurant’s chef was 28-year-old Grant Achatz. At the time, Regan writes in her memoir, she wanted “to be as passionate about writing as Grant was about food.” Trio was Regan’s first exposure to high-end dining, a world that had previously been inaccessible to her, both culturally and economically.
Regan’s time at Trio — as a “manager of guest relations,” or host; as a reservationist; staging — honed her instincts and developed her fine dining sensibilities. She writes that she felt “smart” working there, that unlike her formally trained colleagues, she understood when berries were ripe and how to identify types of mushrooms. Trio was a turning point in Regan’s career, when she realized she could be the author of her own destiny or, rather, the impresario of her own restaurant. Once she’d worked for a place like Trio, she wrote, “when nothing compared, I had to create it for myself.”
In 2008, on the tail of working her way around Chicago’s high-end kitchens and fronts of house — notably Alinea, the restaurant Achatz established in 2005 after leaving Trio; Schwa, a genre-breaking project from fellow Trio alum Michael Carlson; and the late Lettuce Entertain You high notes L2O and Tru — she began a pierogi-making business. While hawking pierogies at farmers markets, in May 2010, she began a series of supper clubs called One Sister to refine the skills and knowledge she had accrued in the fine dining world. The dinners were hosted in her apartment in Andersonville, a North Side neighborhood with a Swedish pedigree and queer — historically lesbian — population. There Regan spent two years cooking four to six 12-to-25-course dinners a month for eight to 12 people each that lasted up to five hours and served as a test lab for what would become Elizabeth.
The One Sister menus archived on Regan’s blog look back at her past by way of pierogies, quote the texts she cares about in courses called “1 Pill Makes You Larger and 1 Pill Makes You Small” and “Scarborough Fair,” and nod at the local through Scandinavian ebelskiver pancakes, Koval whiskey from Chicago, and wild turkey from the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana. In essence, like any good narrative, they foreshadow Regan’s conclusion: making sense of herself through shared stories.
The culmination of One Sister was always meant to be Regan’s own place; the restaurant bears the name of Regan’s late eldest sibling. Elizabeth’s death, on Election Day in 2002, had pushed Regan to get sober, and One Sister had been named in Elizabeth’s honor as well. (In the past, Regan occasionally referred to her portfolio of businesses as “sisters.”) “It has always been that fine dining establishments have a flair of pretense, stuffiness, and separation by space,” she wrote on her blog in 2012, around the time she was opening the restaurant. “We’ve purposefully eliminated all of those elements. I wanted to open a restaurant that was all of who I am, all of who Elizabeth was. The gathering goes beyond food and it’s the gathering of people.”
In fall 2012, Elizabeth the restaurant debuted in the neighborhood of Lincoln Square, known for its Thai and German scenes, less so its tasting menus. The things Regan thought about when imagining her eventual restaurant all circle back to authorship: “the stories I wanted to tell, how I wanted the food to look, what inspired me.” The first year the place was open, she was “there every single day and night — at the end of the night, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor.” Nothing outwardly distinguished her from the other servers, unless you already knew who she was. (“I’ve had guests ask me, ‘Is the owner here?’ and not realize she’s been serving them the whole time,” employees have noted.)
Initial reviews grabbed onto a fantasy aesthetic in the cooking and decor at Elizabeth, with Mike Sula at the Reader calling Regan’s “captivating trajectory” and Elizabeth’s overall look a “fairy tale.” The aesthetic of her space was whimsical, or maybe good Anthropologie: white walls, molded ceiling; serviceware on open shelving in the dining room; bare branches; woodland creatures. The food tended to look New Romantic undercut by pop: the requisite scattered flowers, easily gathered, but also dishes molded into animal shapes or cut into a basic six-petaled flower, which evokes Warhol more than any chef.
Read against Chicago’s echelons of modernist formalism, with their custom serving pieces for blueprint dishes meant to be exactingly duplicated, Elizabeth under Regan was a puncture wound. It was art responding to chemistry, a transformation of the city’s recent dining legacy into something more expansive. Through the process of transformation, Elizabeth was a comment on the prevailing narrative of what Chicago restaurants are.
People noticed. In reviewing Elizabeth for Chicago magazine in winter 2013, Jeff Ruby called it an “audit of us, the foodies, a label we hate but deserve because we can’t come up with anything more apt.” Of the other diners seated at his communal table, Ruby wrote, “One guy says he spends $10,000 a month at restaurants; another keeps mentioning the 20 pounds of deer tenderloin in his freezer. Neither can pronounce ‘foie gras.’” One imagines some stuffy idiots being presented with one of Regan’s signature dishes, an owl stamped in foie.
For early diners, the contrast of the ingredient and the form was probably jarring. After attending a 2017 Twin Peaks dinner, critic Anthony Todd complained that there “weren’t any special gifts, amuse bouche, candies or extra bits.” Maybe his criticism is justified, but much of it hinges on $125 per person being too much to pay without what former Grace and current Ever manager Michael Muser has described as a fine dining “bubble,” preternatural slickness that makes high-spending diners feel special.
At times I feel like Regan’s Elizabeth was a case of content saying “fuck you” to form, but I also look at restaurants as Gesamtkunstwerks, projects whose seemingly discrete elements (food, price, location, decor, service) are orchestrated to work together in their messaging. Overall, Elizabeth was a transformation of the high-end into something accessible, not only in its pricing (pre-pandemic, tickets were often in the $50 to $60 range via mailing list) or decor (like a store you’d shop at) or location (off the El), but in its themed menus, which often reached beyond the pricey restaurant vernacular and into the actual American vernacular: the media we all consume, together.
I first experienced Elizabeth in December 2015, eight months after the first Game of Thrones menu debuted. If “experienced” sounds pretentious, I guess you could say I ate there. But the whole thing was so performative that I was reminded of Elizabeth when I read A.J. Liebling’s ancient theory that “Chicago bars assume that nobody likes liquor, and that to induce the customers to purchase even a minute quantity, they have to provide a show. Restaurateurs … approach the selling of food from the same angle.” The liquor thing was never true, but the dinner theater aspect probably explains something about Elizabeth, Achatz’s Alinea and Next, and Schwa, along with the rest of Charlie Trotter’s lineage, flaming swords at the Pump Room, Ed Debevic’s, and also the many dumb themed pop-up bars proliferating across the city.
The dinner was fairy tale-themed, highlighting the overlaps and contrasts in stories as told in the French and German traditions. The story of Cinderella was served twice, first as a Mother Goose pumpkin and foie gras soup, then with a nod to the Brothers Grimm, as fish wreathed in smoked twigs.
The two courses interpreted the Cinderella story: It was about fantasy narratives born of women’s roles in feudal society. In the first dish, the diner got to see the opulence of the French court and the woman’s role therein: her body a symbol of fertility mirroring that of the land itself. Foie gras is a luxury item whose production involves gavage, a devastating subversion of the natural digestive process. The resources and energy spent in order to produce one lobe is out of proportion with whom the final product is able to feed. (People paying for a tasting menu, Regan told me when we first spoke, may expect a few luxuries.) The dish’s production involves necessary cruelty and literal sacrifice: Some varieties of French female foie gras ducks are euthanized because they can’t produce the right size and quality of engorged liver.
Meanwhile, the next dish — the fish — was more explicit about domestic labor, given the ashes. In Regan’s version that point was driven home by the soup served just before it: The binary of a damning life in poverty or a glorious one of wealth is false. Women’s lives are disposable all of the time.
The fairy tale meal began with a little cordial labeled “drink me.” When Alice does as the label says, she is transformed, taken from her mundane life in restrictive Britain and deposited elsewhere, her own body growing and shrinking, other characters disappearing and reappearing as the narrative allows. When our waiter first engaged us after drinking up, he asked us if we’d ever written a fairy tale ourselves. I said I had, but my dining companion that night said no. “Well,” said our waiter, “you’re going to.”
We didn’t, but both the framing and the content of the meal got to the point that we weren’t there — Regan wasn’t doing this — to blindly accept fairy tale tropes. While consuming them, we were being encouraged to think about them: Why are these stories like this? What do they really mean?
Through the menu, Regan was taking a popular narrative and questioning it by presenting it through food. Through the service — the paratext of the meal, I’d say, if I were being academic about it — she was also inviting her diners to become authors, to participate in that transformation. Within the example I’ve laid out, there are two ways to receive stories: accept them as they are, or not. That choice has been described by a fan named obsession_inc as two types of fandom: affirmational and transformational. The former involves pursuits like collecting and memorizing trivia; the latter is “laying hands upon the source and twisting it to the fans’ own purposes.”
It’s amazing how well this concept works with high-end dining. Regan was absolutely twisting stories to her own purpose, but the Elizabeth fantasy dinners fit neatly into a progression of theme menus in Chicago. Achatz’s restaurant Next, which opened in 2011, operates on the premise of dressing up as multiple wholly different dining experiences per year. It’s a kind of cosplay, in that Next is engaging not just in the dress-up component, but also the role-play: Sometimes it’s another restaurant altogether; it’s been El Bulli, and in fall 2016, it became the French Laundry. In fall 2020 it was slated to become the Fat Duck.
Next — along with probably most restaurants — is affirming dining traditions. It did not just become the idea of the French Laundry; it was specifically the French Laundry on the night of October 28, 1996, the first time Achatz ate there. Apparently, Thomas Keller personally signed off on this. In addition to creator approval, that’s a high degree of attention to detail and reiteration, not to say that’s a bad thing in and of itself, just — it’s affirmational. (Alas, the cycle turns through all seasons.)
This can be a bankable model for restaurants and food brands. On a basic level, both media fandom and restaurant dining are types of consumption, so the commercial prospects of affirming what fans like are robust. In Chicago, a replica of the diner from Saved by the Bell had to extend its run twice, and nerd-themed bars offer pop-up after pop-up, cycling through commercial properties both au courant and nostalgic. (It’s a long, long list. Really.) Nationally, Shake Shack introduced a Game of Thrones milkshake, and the title sequence was recreated with Oreos. If these reaches feel hollow, it’s because there is something deeply cynical about corporations using corporate media to burnish their corporate reputations. It goes beyond affirmation, and misses why fans care about things in the first place.
Still, people love to spend money on stuff they’re already invested in. That’s why Harry Potter is a chain of theme parks now, where you can drink and eat what Harry drank and ate; reproduction candy from the series first appeared in 2000. (If you’re not totally jazzed to support the world’s most famous TERF, maybe skip it and try Avatar land or whatever. I’m sure it’s fine. I’m holding out for the new Casa Bonita.) There’s also a Star Trek Cookbook from 1999; it’s a disappointing attempt to normalize the absurd, like Klingon Bloodwine made of Jell-O. Another iteration is slated to appear in September 2022, one more in a deluge of recent pop culture cookbooks.
But much of that is officially licensed — surely fans get more creative? Not usually. The food writer Tejal Rao, for example, was so taken with the anime Yuri on Ice that she recreated the main character’s favorite dish, a pork katsudon. (Weirdly, the piece doesn’t mention that it’s an anime about a romance between two guys — with a sizable fandom at its 2016-17 peak.) Like Next, most fannish food projects stick to affirming whatever’s in the text. Elizabeth’s menus, meanwhile, went beyond mere replication to translate food references and concepts into broader insights. It’s a transformational process.
When Regan started doing fantasy menus at Elizabeth in 2015, she pinpointed a junction between two groups of obsessives: dining enthusiasts and fantasy nerds. That spring, Elizabeth announced the first Game of Thrones-inspired menu, timed to premiere alongside the fifth season of the show. It was such a success — Chicago called the announcement a “minor hysteria” — that Regan implemented an ongoing fantasy dinner series. In winter 2015, she began serving the French-versus-German fairy tales, while spring 2016 saw menus based on The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. From there, things expanded wildly: Elizabeth hosted dinners that interpreted Harry Potter, the works of Dr. Seuss and Wes Anderson, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks. Late 2019 was all about ’80s Nintendo.
The amount of brainstorming and planning for the dinners extended beyond what was strictly necessary to make a meal based on, for example, Game of Thrones, a show where they eat and talk about food often enough to come up with a few courses of, let’s say, lemon cakes and horse hearts. Regan read A Song of Ice and Fire and listened to the audiobooks, making notes of references to foods throughout the series. She told me in 2016 that she couldn’t participate in fandom directly given the time-consuming nature of her work. Yet she described herself as following Game of Thrones “in almost a fanfiction type of way,” and reading critical commentary on fantasy series for other menus she developed. After carefully noting the textual references to food she’d picked up, she assigned her staff to find their own culinary descriptions. They met to compare notes on these food references in order to translate them into dishes and menus. Having gathered the references, the menus took shape. “I let the food be the driver,” Regan said of developing specific dishes. “Some of them are conceptual. Some of them, you know, a little bit literal.”
All of Elizabeth’s fannish dinners made the argument that there are no single versions of stories. Regan did Game of Thrones dinners for four years, and every time the menu changed, as if to suggest that there are many threads to pull out of those books, not one unifying narrative. A video of a Game of Thrones menu posted to Eater in 2015 was different from the one I ate almost two years later, which was different from another I had in 2019. Likewise, fandom runs on the notion that people can retell the stories we love and hate according to their own rules. (George R.R. Martin, it’s worth noting, vocally, passionately hates fanfic.)
What’s striking about this is that fic writers are regularly accused of gathering bits of what’s not theirs, things they didn’t make themselves, and exploiting those stolen details. But fics are composites of the aspects fans see of themselves within the texts they consume. This is not only what Regan did with individual menus, but Elizabeth as a restaurant; it was an amalgamation of the physical Great Lakes landscape, of Chicago’s restaurant culture and a broader fine dining influence, and of the stories she cares about, all filtered through her personal history.
In cooking culinary adaptations of other people’s properties, Regan became an author of new stories; she transformed her diners into characters within them — or, viewed from another angle, authors of their own stories born of the stories Regan was retelling. Mostly, it’s that Regan invited the diner to participate in said transformation. Telling and retelling stories is a communal project. Fantasy narratives belong to no single author or, for that matter, chef; fantasy narratives are shared. Fandom is about community-building and about locating oneself within that community. Basing menus on commercial properties is how Regan got diners to locate themselves within her food. At Elizabeth, one witnessed a retelling of a story they already knew, and were invited to participate. The extent to which diners met this challenge was up to them, but it offered the possibility of imprinting on the meal. If people didn’t enjoy this, it wasn’t fully Regan’s problem; the cover and tip were paid months in advance.
At my first Game of Thrones menu, in April 2017, Regan spotted me and came by the table. She referenced the first conversation we’d had about fanfic the year before and told me that the new, upcoming dinner series were moving away from direct references and closer to fic, because the series she was about to start working on lacked that specificity. A few days later, I got an email blast about a Twin Peaks menu that called Elizabeth’s themed dinners a collision between “fan fiction and what we do” — meaning the foraging. It felt weirdly validating, and like Regan was talking to me — but it’s also true that every time I see the word “fanfiction,” I feel like it’s directed at me. The Tock listing for a January 2020 Star Wars series — excuse me, “The Battles of Outer Space” — used that word again.
At that April 2017 dinner, which I incidentally attended with an incredibly prolific Star Wars fic author, the dessert courses had all revolved around female characters. A few days after the meal, I pointedly asked my friend, “Do you think that dinner could have been made by a [cis] man?” To which she wrote back, “Since so much about fandom and about why I feel comfortable there is about healing, that dessert course was like some kind of healing moment for me. And in that sense it felt like my experience of fandom otherwise — a response to mainstream media that is critical but doesn’t necessarily appear to be criticism, because it’s also a celebration and reclamation of forgotten or overlooked or mishandled elements.”
That’s what many get out of fandom: that corrective, a collective acknowledgement that, yes, the way mainstream entertainment treats its queer and female characters is still mostly pretty screwed up, because the way we treat those people is still mostly pretty screwed up. (Fandom’s record on addressing racism in texts, and within its own ranks, is much worse.) That fic is a corrective action taken by the kinds of people who don’t usually see their stories reflected in the mainstream has long since been established in fan studies, where the practice is called “oppositional” fandom, and it’s been going on for a long time.
The potted history of transformative works establishes that people have been doing it forever: The basic survey is the Aeneid, Shakespeare, the Brontës writing “anecdotes” about the Duke of Wellington for some reason, I guess he was hot? and Arthur Conan Doyle’s general apathy for Sherlock Holmes. In the 1960s and ’70s, the codification of the first modern media fandom around Star Trek coincided with the era of women’s liberation. In the 2013 edited volume Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, Jacqueline Lichtenberg describes a zine collating party, where women, primarily housewives, gathered at her suburban home to assemble collections of Star Trek art and fic. Lichtenberg writes of balancing her collating direction with taking care of her children, “poking baking potatoes,” and trying to get people’s cars moved so her husband could use the driveway. Contemporary media fandom was born from this suburban postwar setting, probably as a reaction to it. In the years since, primarily women and LGBTQ people have continued to search for themselves within texts — and force themselves in via fic after coming up empty-handed.
So I do not think it’s a coincidence that the person manhandling men’s stories and turning them into something you can eat was a female chef. Regan has written about how, as a child, she didn’t see herself as a girl; she wanted to be a boy. “Sometimes you don’t have choices,” she’s recalled one of her older sisters telling her. Much of the story she tells about her life is about accepting womanhood and learning to practice it unconventionally. Certainly she is aware of the ways in which being perceived as a woman makes running a restaurant harder. She recounts, for example, in Burn the Place, one instance where she was directly told, “We don’t hire females.” “Most days,” she writes, “I’m too busy to think about my gender or my sexuality. I’m fine being in the middle.”
The reality of the restaurant industry, though, makes it impossible to ignore gender and sexuality. In 2011, the year before Elizabeth opened, she told the Reader, “I don’t want to pigeonhole myself, because I’m gay — I don’t want people saying, ‘She’s a man hater!’ But the thing is, it’s so hard getting investors as a woman. If I was a guy, I know by now someone would be like, ‘Yeah, dude, here’s the money. Rock on.’” She’s also said that she created the exact kitchen environment she wanted to work in. A major aspect of this is her treatment of the staff, an issue she’d observed in other restaurants. In writing on the culture of the Elizabeth kitchen for Lucky Peach in 2015, she interrogated the fine line between managing a disciplined staff and yelling or beating people down, which she doesn’t do. “As chefs we are teachers and if we are ridiculing our students, who we haven’t properly taught, we are at fault,” she wrote, stating that she’d prefer to let someone go over mistreating them into submission.
In 2016, Regan told me that she felt obligated to treat her staff well, that her salary was on par with her staff’s, and that she sometimes didn’t pay herself if she couldn’t pay them first. She felt this helped support staff retention. She has also written in Burn the Place that yelling is a tool that only some chefs can successfully wield: “When you’re a woman and you yell, it doesn’t have the same effect as the guys yelling. They were like army sergeants. I was just a ‘crazy bitch.’”
Aside from Burn the Place, Regan’s non-Elizabeth Chicago dining ventures were well-loved and much-praised but not sustainable. After her first expansion, Bunny the Micro Bakery, collapsed in a matter of months in 2016, Regan opened another full-scale restaurant, Kitsune, which more or less put a Japanese frame around her general approach. There, she used the six-petaled cutter to make mochi flowers and foraged from her own kitchen, using vegetable peelings to make ash for ramen noodles. The menu was constantly shifting, offering occasional themed experiences (one was Japanese 7-Eleven) and veering between a la carte and kaiseki, among other formats.
GQ called Kitsune a best new restaurant for 2018; Chicago magazine named it one of the city’s 50 best, period, that year. In the Reader, Mike Sula characterized the entire thing as Man in the High Castle fic, “what it would be like to open a restaurant if the Japanese had occupied Chicago for the last 70 years.” It’s arguable that Regan was presaging the high-end Japanese trend that swept across the West Loop in 2019, to Michelin approval. Yet despite general enthusiasm for Kitsune, and for Japanese tasting menus, it closed in July 2019. After three years of intermittent Bunny pop-ups since its initial run, Regan had mounted a Kickstarter to relaunch the bakery inside Kitsune, which had doubled its $18,000 goal. Six weeks after reopening, Bunny was closed, too.
Bunny’s second debut was in May 2019. By early afternoon on the first day, the pastries were long gone; they’d sold out in the first hour, I heard Regan tell another customer who’d stopped in specifically for whiskey-glazed doughnuts. Bunny was operating during the daytime in the Kitsune space, and as at Elizabeth, the open kitchen was highly visible from every spot in the house. From a banquette on the wall, I saw the shelves above the bar, lined with Funko Pops crowded around a headshot of Barack Obama; and Regan herself, busy in the kitchen, calling out to the staff for their lunch orders.
She also saw me, and came over to ask if I was current on Game of Thrones, which had just aired its second-to-last episode, in which Daenerys Targaryen had taken a heel-turn and immolated what appeared to be thousands of people. Not personally invested in the show, I stumbled through an answer that largely amounted to “whatever” so I could find out what she thought.
Regan signaled her approval, saying she related very deeply: “I feel you, Khaleesi.” The dragonfire part was especially appealing to Regan. The title of her memoir sprang to mind, as did the dragon eggs I’d spotted at Elizabeth. In Burn the Place, Regan recounts describing to her wife, Anna Hamlin, a dream of running away to the “edge of the world.”
“What about Elizabeth?” Hamlin asks.
The answer: “What about it? I’ll burn it.”
Hamlin came in; they discussed their dog, who was having dental problems.
“You want to see a menu?”
“We can’t afford it,” Hamlin joked. (The bakery and Kitsune closed within two months.)
The chef mumbled something about pet insurance, and they began discussing daily life minutiae. All discussion of Game of Thrones stopped; Hamlin wasn’t caught up yet.
Regan and Hamlin, a sommelier, collaborate on Milkweed Inn, a “glampy” bed-and-breakfast in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, described as Regan’s “dreamiest” dream to date. Reservations for summer 2019 sold out in less than two days. It is the ultimate foraging ground: The property is 150 acres, and there is brook trout fishing. Double occupancy for two nights, in the main cabin, a wall tent, or an Airstream, runs $2,000 to $3,000, and as described it’s like paying for the privilege of spending the weekend with Regan and Hamlin in their home. In the same passage where Regan writes of her “silver bullet trailer dreams” and wanting to run away from society, she says she put Hamlin’s engagement ring in a box of Star Wars Legos.
“We are still building it,” she writes. Then, a few paragraphs later: “On the Friday before the wedding, we played Star Wars under the stars on a big screen so everyone could see what was so romantic about it.”
Outside of the Chicago restaurant industry in 2019, the most important thing in human history was occurring: Game of Thrones, the TV show, was ending; the media landscape was oversaturated with it. En route to one last Game of Thrones dinner, the headline blaring at me from the Sun-Times box was “CHICAGO’S OWN GAME OF THRONES,” about some since-dispelled City Hall drama. As a franchise, I’d begun to feel like it had expanded to a point where each reference to it weighted down every reference made before it and all Game of Thrones media that would come after it: the books, the show, the commercial tie-ins, the meals at Elizabeth. I wanted to go to that dinner, write about it in this story, and never think about Game of Thrones again.
There were echoes of the last Game of Thrones meal I’d had at Elizabeth, two years prior, but the menu was a mix of Regan’s staples transformed through new references, and old references remade with new courses. The black bread, for example, was now served with pickled root vegetables — because winter is coming, so start canning — and mussels, a nod to Davos Seaworth, whose father, we were told, was a crabber. The asparagus, abundantly in season in Chicago in April and May, made its way into something else.
Again, desserts centered on female characters. The first was inspired by Olenna Tyrell, a politically savvy older noblewoman who’s also a magnificent, highly effective bitch. Lady Olenna especially likes nice cheeses; it would have been easy enough to do a straight cheese course, but we were served instead a Delice de Bourgogne ice cream on an oat base with a honey reduction nestled in the middle of the dish, so that the overall presentation looked like a boiled egg sliced open. It tasted, however, like Delice de Bourgogne.
The next day, it occurred to me that the ice cream course wasn’t a dull reference lent weight by kitchen flourish; it was a character study. Delice is a triple-cream, so, literally, rich, in both milk fat and in metaphors for abundance; you need a lot of dairy to make this cheese, so you need a lot of grazing land, which the Tyrell family owns in abundance. Also, it’s a strong and pungent flavor, a little sour, like the family matriarch. The dish turned the concept of sweet on its head; dessert is supposed to be likable, complementary to the meal, and easily consumed, a reward crowning a series of rewards, like the women in fairy tales, or medieval society.
The meal had gotten me to think about characters, about some books I’d read years ago, to try to make sense of a convoluted and sometimes horrifying story through the medium of food. As with fanfics, the dishes were a lens through which to examine the narrative, to figure out what I made of it, and if I liked it.
I pushed away that ice cream the same way I’d gotten sick of that show.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Elizabeth did what most restaurants fighting to stay open attempted: a version of its service that worked for them. On March 15, 2020, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker ordered all restaurants and bars in the state closed for dine-in service. The next day, Regan announced that Elizabeth would be offering carryout. She could not afford to retain her staff without operating.
The COVID-19 adaptation of Elizabeth sold weekly meals available for delivery or pickup, and sometimes bakery boxes with Regan’s roster of breads and pastries. The entrepreneurial thought experiments that had always accompanied Elizabeth and Kitsune — ramen kits and Bunny-related flash sales — made it feel like less of a pivot, to use a cliche, than other places had to make. Given its record of cycling through foraging and fanfic menus, pricing structures and new products, Elizabeth had been working in a what’s-new paradigm for years. On occasion, these at-home meals were lightly themed: One, from June 2020, was modeled on a ploughman’s lunch; in October 2020, a Halloween-ish dinner was brought to my door with a blue-black Booberry parfait for dessert, studded with cereal ghosts and a stark white blossom, its petals evoking a groaning phantom. In its playful reference, it was Elizabethan. What was never announced, however, was an entire take-home menu themed to a commercial property.
Hopping from media property to media property had begun to feel a bit like so-called migratory slash fandom, a derisive name for groups of fans who move on to writing male/male shipping fic for whichever franchise is generating the most buzz at any given moment, looking for readers. (Our Flag Means Death seemed to be it most recently, if you want in.) In 2016, Regan had told me that one reason she kept doing theme menus was a need to simply fill seats. Her ardor for Game of Thrones had been palpable. How passionate had she been about 1980s Nintendo? Duck hunting and mushrooms aside, that’s a brand, not a story. How much further could the concept of cooking fanfic be pushed?
By Regan, at least, no further; she wasn’t cooking at Elizabeth during the early COVID period at all, in fact. She was holed up with Hamlin in Michigan. In October 2021, another email went out from Elizabeth, not so much announcing as confirming that the restaurant had been passed on. Regan and Hamlin would continue to offer cooking classes through Elizabeth. Otherwise, their sole culinary project was now Milkweed. Regan was continuing her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and finishing her second book, Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir, slated for January 2023. (She has also said she’s writing a novel.) A profile of Regan by Kim Severson in the New York Times nearly two years prior had broadcast Regan’s intention to “burn it,” as she’d written, but COVID-19 had forestalled an announcement that longtime collaborators were now running Elizabeth; Tim Lacey was the restaurant’s new owner, and Ian Jones its new chef.
For readers of Burn the Place or followers of Regan’s career, the departure shouldn’t have been much of a surprise: All those fast-moving projects, quickly dissipated; all the talk of burning the restaurant down; all that acreage in the woods, 350 miles north of Chicago, seemed to point to a chef who wouldn’t be running a restaurant, or at least the same restaurant, forever. In January 2020, Severson had written of Regan’s plan to make Milkweed Inn sustainable enough that she could close Elizabeth entirely. She was tired of running the restaurant and just wanted to be in the woods. (“Woods = god.”) The pandemic, which has disrupted so much, in the restaurant industry and otherwise, put Elizabeth and its founder in a holding pattern. Regan was able to make a prolonged exit, and Elizabeth survived.
But is it a contradiction that Elizabeth, the restaurant, persists? Regan’s ubiquity in the kitchen, or simply waiting tables, makes it hard to imagine the space without her in it. The restaurant’s iconography (the owl mold, the flower cutter, the branches, the horns) are her semiotics. It’s named after her dead sister.
In November 2021, Jones told me via email that he intends to retain some of these markers of Regan’s Elizabeth while working with Lacey to evolve it — or transform it, one might say — into something that is also theirs. Asked about whether this included fannish dinners explicitly, he said he “would be interested in doing media related themes. But I want to focus on the food and service first and foremost. I really believe we can have our menus creative and fun enough for us to not have to do themed dinners.” He added that they had discussed maybe doing a Squid Game one, but well into 2022, nothing resembling one of Regan’s fanfic menus had been announced.
Despite this, I was unable to read Jones’s comments outside of a transformative framework. I asked if he was planning to use, say, the visual language of molds Regan had left behind; Jones said he was, and that he’d “always been a huge fan” of them. I asked if he was a “fan” of Regan’s; “of course” he was. But their shared ethos circles back to Regan’s methods: Jones said “her approach to food, foraging, hunting, and preservation fit in very easily” with his background (half-Korean; Coloradan). “It will definitely be ‘my story’ but also holding true to Chef Regan’s roots and what she has taught me over the years,” he said. “We will take the ‘history’ of the restaurant and form our own story based on that … and continue to evolve around those ideas.”
The history part, at least, was literal; in August 2022, Elizabeth announced a fall dinner series celebrating its 10th anniversary, “in consultation with Chef Regan, to reverse engineer the menu.” These plans echo Achatz iterating Keller several years ago, but also push the meta commentary of the restaurant iterating a restaurant into overdrive. I bought tickets immediately.
Of the transition, Regan told me, “It will be different but it can still be Elizabeth,” in the sense of both the venue and the sister whose legacy was “in the marrow of the restaurant.”
“Her energy and mine are still there, but it is [the staff’s] now to harness. It’s the same and different. It’s good. I’m happy to pass it along. … From here my relationship to them is as a friend, and supporter. Maybe the most enthusiastic one for what they will do.”
In vocalizing support while divesting from Elizabeth, Regan has made an evolution that many creators of properties that grow vocal fandoms never manage: remaining at the center of the core concept while also letting go.
Since I began working on this story in 2016, fandom has expanded as a topic of conflicted discourse. Inevitably, cracks have appeared in the Pollyannaish Obama-era thesis that fandom is simply an activist source of social justice. As a term, it has bled fully into the mainstream, but there are as many kinds of fandom as there are people practicing it. The truth is that the binary obsession_inc presented 13 years ago, of affirming and transformative fans, obscures that these impulses can exist within the same social group, and even within the same person, often toward the same source material.
But good writing demands specificity, and we want to know what a fan is and what fandom means. The conversation happening now in the outlets that track fandom — Ryan Broderick’s Substack-based Garbage Day newsletter; the Fansplaining podcast hosted by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel; Stitch’s Fan Service column for Teen Vogue — grapples with this mainstreaming, asking questions about what the relationship is now between individual fans, and fandoms, and the intellectual property they engage with. At best, there is an ambivalent, narrow consensus that fandom, once a niche and a subculture, can now be openly commercially exploited through cookbooks and theme parks. And if everything is fandom, then a restaurant can be, too. Elizabeth did not just attract fans; it has fans. With its networks of symbols and signature dishes, it is its own IP. This is why it was able to be passed on.
For Jones and Lacey, the intellectual project of Elizabeth can be now framed as divining how much of Regan’s initial authorship to affirm, and what to transform. How closely will their September menu evoke Regan’s first at Elizabeth, from 2012? One of the core angsts of transformative works fandom is intuiting how far from the canon a fan’s creativity can take a story and its characters before it becomes inherently unrecognizable. But one interpretation of Regan’s life and career (thus far) is that she has made a transition from fan to professional, in the way that participatory fandom is often framed as a stepping-stone to “legitimate” authorship. One Sister and Elizabeth were commentaries on a mode of fine dining, and the fantasy dinners were comments on their source material. Having garnered a following through these, she was able to sell a memoir about being a chef; that memoir has been optioned for television, and she has completed a second memoir. Through transforming others’ work, she has managed somehow to transform herself.
Vaneda Vireak is a visual developer and storyboarder who got her start straight out of high school as an illustrator for comics, and currently works in visual development at Netflix on Michael Green and Amber Noizumi’s Blue Eye Samurai.
Molly Knox Ostertag is an Ignatz and Prism award-winning graphic novelist, 30 Under 30 Forbes scholar, and a writer for children’s TV animation.
Ciar O’Mahony is an artist-curator and artist and curator using curatorial and artistic projects to examine relationships between labor, education, and the greater economy.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein
Additional research by Aimee Levitt